On the 16th September 2022, twenty-two year-old, Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Iran, after having been arrested by the morality police for wearing her hijab, “improperly”.
Since her death, the world has watched as thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in protest of Mahasa’s death and the Iranian regime under which they are forced to live, at great risk to their own personal safety. The protests have spread to 160 cities in all 31 provinces and are seen as one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.
Women have led the street protests, challenging the country’s regime, as they have waved and burned their veils. Daily, there have been reports of deaths and arrests as Iran’s government have declared their intention to punish anyone who protests. Just last week, on Thursday 8th December, Iran announced the first execution of a protester: 23-year-old Mohsen Shekan was hanged after being found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of ‘moharebeh’ (enmity against God). He was accused of being a rioter.
Dr Nina Ansary, an Iranian American historian and author, is using her social media platforms to name and honour the women, men and children who are paying a brutal cost for their freedom cries. It is sobering and shocking to read. But read it we must, the people are of Iran are standing up to ‘Herods’ and the courage that this takes is immense and the cost is ultimate. It’s a story that one might imagine could easily have been told of the days, ‘of bad-hearted Chief Looks Brave.’ And yet it, like thousands of other stories across our world and time, are happening in our lifetimes.
Just as the prevailing sense of restriction and control dominates everyday life in Iran, in Matthew’s Gospel’s advent narrative, the presence of Chief Looks Brave (Herod) is dominant. His rule permeates his subject’s existence. And even though his reign stretches back two thousand years in history, we cannot help but notice the similarities to our world today. Similarities that draw us right into the heart of the Christmas story. Before the days of Herod and after them, there have always been rulers who have felt threatened by the peacemakers, the justice seekers, and the freedom workers. History has seen Herod’s come and go in many guises.
I mentioned yesterday that Herod was given the name, king of the Jews. In Matthew chapter two, we read how Magi come to Herod and ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod realises instantly that they are not asking for him. This question, asked to a paranoid king, will precipitate the horrific killing of Bethlehem’s baby boys. But this question, also, is Matthew’s way of telling us, his reader, that Jesus, is the true king of the Jews, and that Herod is an imposter. Their reigns and rules would stand in great contrast to each other. In Matthew 5, we read of the sort of world Jesus’ reign instigated, where the poor are blessed, the broken-hearted comforted, the justice seekers affirmed, and the peacemakers honoured. A world that we work, hope and wait for.
Sami Awad, is the executive director of Holy Land Trust, and lives in Bethlehem. He writes of how, for him; “...the birth of Jesus was the birth of the vision of peace.” Jesus brought the beginning of peace. A peace that won’t be fully realised this side of eternity, but a peace that we are invited to work for the fulfilment of. A way of peace, that may find us confronting the ‘Herods’ of our days, “...and like any true vision of peace born in situations of power, domination, fear and resignation, there will always be a reaction.”
‘Herod’s’ still fight, reject, and persecute the peacemakers. Iran’s regime considers their executions of young protestors as a way of deterring others from taking to the streets with their words of life and freedom. In killing or imprisoning the messengers, they too, like ‘Herod’s’ of past and present, wish to kill their message. And before it would appear that I am holding my own country’s story in contrast to the brutality of Iran’s, we too, have also played and do play, the part of ‘Herod’, restricting, enslaving, destroying and treating brutally, the lives of others.
The angels may have declared across night skies that peace was born in Bethlehem, but troubles and oppressive rulers didn’t disappear just because Jesus arrived. Advent asks us to wrestle honestly with this truth; inviting us to enter places of pain, and to stand in solidarity with those who are facing ‘Herod’ the most directly.
To speak blessing to this, is to speak of lament and solidarity. Lament, for a world that hasn’t been immediately changed by Jesus’ birth, and solidarity with those who are living in places where they face pain and adversity. To speak blessing here is to acknowledge the perpetual invitation offered to enter into those places with our prayers, our voices, and our actions of support.
Fleming Rutledge wrote that, “to be a Christian is to live every day of our lives in solidarity with those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, but to live in the unshakeable hope of those who expect the dawn.”
be willing to sit in the dark,
with all who face great pain.
May we weep with them,
And hold them near
In the deepest of prayer.
summon something of their courage,
that will allow us
to live lives of radical peace,
is on its way.